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Learning two languages simultaneously: a working memory booster ?

Language aptitude and working memory are two essential skills in learning a second language. Previously thought to be static, it seems that these skills can improve during the learning process. A 2020 study published in the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (1) investigated whether studying two languages simultaneously could further boost these skills.

Language aptitude and working memory: definitions

In the study by researchers from the Center for Language and Cognition and the University of Groningen (Netherlands), these two skills are defined as follows.

Language aptitude (LA) : This is the initial ability of an individual to learn a language. It is based on four components :

  • phonological coding, i.e. the ability to analyse sounds ;
  • associative memory ;
  • grammatical awareness, which is the understanding of the role of words in a sentence ;
  • and inductive (logical) language learning.

Working memory (WM): This refers to a memory system that provides both, temporary storage and manipulation of information needed for complex cognitive tasks.

While these two skills were previously thought to be static traits in multilingual learners, it appears that they may actually develop during the course of language learning. At least, this is what the researchers seem to suggest.

💡 You may also be interested in this article: Learning a new language makes your brain perform better !

Studying two languages simultaneously: effects on LA and WM

Some researchers believe that people who learn several languages at the same time are at a disadvantage. They consider that these individuals have the same skills and resources as others, but that they need to spread them across more languages.

Others consider that multilingual learners are at an advantage. They would be better equipped than others because of their rich language learning experience. In the 2020 study, the researchers chose to start with this assumption. They wanted to find out whether working memory and language aptitude are more stimulated in people who use several languages.

The literature review they conducted beforehand tends to prove that the number of languages learned or spoken has a positive impact on WM and LA. To prove this, they compared groups of students learning different language combinations. They then analysed the evolution of their skills over a period of 9 months. Some groups were learning only a second language (English) and others a second (English) and a third language (Russian or Japanese).

👉 Going further : Learning two languages at the same time without getting them mixed up : challenge accepted !

Multilingual learning: visible benefits for the memory

Language learning has a beneficial effect on learning ability

The groups of students were subjected to tests to measure the evolution of their language aptitude and working memory. These tests were carried out at the beginning of the study and at the end of the academic year, i.e. 9 months later.

The first results showed that both abilities assessed improved significantly at the end of 9 months. This was true for all groups of students. This proves that language aptitude and working memory are not static. They can improve with the use of languages.

🔎 Read also: 5, 10… or more? How many languages can you learn ?

Second and third language: conclusive results on working memory

In their study, the researchers saw no difference in the improvement of language aptitude in students learning two languages simultaneously. The results were quite similar to those of students learning only one foreign language. However, they observed a greater change in working memory in students learning a second and third foreign language at the same time.

It would seem that learning two languages simultaneously requires more information to be processed. Moreover, students are forced to switch from one language pattern to another. They are then able to integrate this information across the two languages, leaving out superfluous elements. In this way, their working memory is further stretched and put to use by study two languages simultaneously.

In other words, by learning a foreign language, you improve your language aptitude and working memory. Studying two languages at the same time even takes your working memory to the next level, thanks to the extra training !

(1) Source : Ting Huang, Hanneke Loerts & Rasmus Steinkrauss (2022) The impact of second- and third-language learning on language aptitude and working memory, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 25:2, 522-538, DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2019.1703894.